Maori Council makes bullying claim after water threat

KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 05:00 03/08/2012

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The Maori Council has accused the Government of bullying after it threatened to go ahead with the partial privatisation of Mighty River Power without waiting for the Waitangi Tribunal's recommendation.

Ministers have written to the tribunal asking it to report back by August 24 on the council's claim that Maori have ownership rights for fresh water, so they can make a decision on the share float in the first week of September.

Finance Minister Bill English suggested the float would go ahead regardless of whether the tribunal reported back early. "We would do this on the basis of all the information available to us at that time."

The Government wanted to hear from the tribunal, he said. "We would certainly prefer to have the tribunal's views in front of us."

Maori Council chairman Maanu Paul said the Government could flex its muscles but should remember that the tribunal was an independent court of reconciliation.

"This amounts to bullying on the Government's part and I just want to remind the prime minister that our door is always open, we are prepared to sit down and negotiate."

It appears the Government has decided not to let the Maori water rights issue get in the way of asset sales, especially on the basis of what it sees as an opportunist claim. It has also expressed concern that a delay in Mighty River Power's share float could have knock-on effects on other state-owned assets it plans to sell.

The Maori Council lodged a claim with the tribunal after the Government announced plans to sell up to 49 per cent of four state-owned energy companies and to reduce its stake in Air New Zealand.

The council claims Maori have ownership rights for fresh water and the asset sales should be halted until those rights can be established.

Mr Paul said he did not expect the tribunal to report back early. The tribunal this week released its interim decision, calling for a delay on the asset sales plan until a full report was released in September.

Mana Party leader Hone Harawira said if the Government wanted a proper ruling it should wait.

"I guess [Prime Minister] John Key's just pushing it. I think it's National trying to bully the tribunal, but I think . . . the Maori Council is going to get a ruling from the tribunal which will enable them to go to the High Court."

The tribunal was doing its best and the difference was only a month, he said.

The Government has promised to consult the Maori Party before announcing its decision on the tribunal's findings. The meeting is due to take place on Monday following a hui of Maori leaders in Wellington.

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Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples said due process must be followed.

- Fairfax Media

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